John Dowland and the lost English Consort School of chamber music

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Clockwise from upper left: William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, William Lawes

In 2006, Sting came out with Songs from the Labyrinth, an album devoted to the Elizabethan composer John Dowland. It was an unlikely choice of musical material for a rock star, yet Sting approached Dowland with enthusiasm and respect, refraining from rendering his songs into pop or setting them to a rock beat (as Richard Thompson for example has done with Renaissance tunes and Italian madrigals). He employed a professional lutenist, Edin Karamazov, and accompanied some of the pieces on the lute himself, one of his recent passions. Showing restraint and taste, Sting did not attempt to sing the songs in the stylized “classical” manner but used his voice’s natural register to adopt at times a relaxed and conversational, at times a more hushed or emphatic tone to suit each song’s occasion.

The result was oddly compelling and delightful. In the decade since the recording was released, the album’s Amazon page has accumulated over 200 largely favorable customer reviews. The handful of negative reviews are not, as one might suspect, from Sting fans baffled by his newfound classical preoccupation but rather finicky classical purists taking issue with his vocal incompetence, his nerve in attempting something out of his league. Yet they miss the point. The rocker’s homespun approach reveals the music’s texture in a fresh way, and moreover reflects the actual conditions in which Dowland’s music was performed, namely by musician friends in a relaxed and intimate setting.

Dowland appeals to us in that he shares certain affinities with the modern notion of the artist—the artist as alienated, rebellious iconoclast, misunderstood by his society, striking out on his own in proud defiance of convention. The English long for a Caravaggio, Beethoven or Van Gogh to call their own (they do have one in fact: Shakespeare, but he’s not neurotic enough). Dowland can, partially at any rate, be said to fit the bill. He is indeed an enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure, in the Greek sense, his fate largely self-inflicted. Before we investigate the reasons for this, and what it all has to do with the point of this essay, we need to slip back a few decades in time to the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the extraordinary story of her chief court musician, Alfonso Ferrabosco.

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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 2: Xinluoma

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Malmquist lifted his head off the floor in a daze as he regained consciousness. “Where am I?”

“E tu chi sei?” a man whispered to him in the darkness.

“Who are you?”

“Sei lo schiavo nuovo?”

“What language are you speaking?”

“Che lingua stai parlando?”

“Do you speak English?”

“Inglese? No, non parlo Inglese.”

“Where am I? Chicago? What happened?”

“Di dove sei? Non sapevo che voleva uno schiavo nuovo.”

“I don’t understand you. Are you Italian?”

“Shsh. Fa silenzio.”

“L’eunuco ha preso uno della sua eta’,” murmured another, with a laugh.

They lit an oil lamp, and the room revealed a group of startled young men wearing simple tunics, lying on thin pallets. “Di dove sei?” they asked.

“Would you please tell me what the hell is going on? I was just in Gary, Indiana, in the future. Escaping from Gary. And then I must have blacked out. Am I shot?”

In praise of concubines: Interview with Lloyd Lofthouse

imageA distinction must be made before I get off on the wrong footing with many readers (which I inevitably will) between the system of domestic sexual slavery in China that lasted up to the mid-20th century known as concubinage, and concubines. I don’t support slavery in any form, sexual or otherwise, but I would, in the right circumstances, support a concubine. For a particular concubine, the right concubine, I would pay. I think you would too. Say you encounter the woman of your dreams — one with your ideal “10” body. I mean the kind of body that would make you cheat on your wife or girlfriend for the very first time. You know what kind of body I’m talking about. There’s not a man around who doesn’t secretly fear this future catastrophe. She also happens to be smart, cultured and talented — poet, belly-dancer, Derrida fan, you name it. And here’s the clincher: she’s into you as well. But there’s a catch. In her country, where you’ve met, you are not allowed to lay a hand on her unless you buy her. No, not a one-shot gig like a prostitute, but really buy her, for good. You can have her all for your very own, provided, of course, you set her up and take care of her, ensure her welfare. On the other hand, she is affordable (credit cards accepted). By purchasing her you will be considerably improving her economic circumstances, and thus her ability to develop her talents and self-actualize to her fullest potential. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? (In fact, this scenario is not all that different from what already exists. It’s called marrying up. The terms are just not so cut and dry.)

Why Airbnb ain’t my cup of tea

 

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Airbnb has of late been getting unfavorable news coverage. Clever property owners have discovered that by turning over their residential units to Airbnb guests, they can rake in more cash than renting them out to regular tenants, while at the same time exploiting legal loopholes to avoid paying hotel taxes. In San Francisco, disenfranchised residents have accused the company of exacerbating the affordable housing crisis. Proposition F, which would curtail Airbnb’s ability to facilitate such profiteering, has just been defeated. This legal battle recalls those recently pitting local taxi drivers in various cities around the world against Uber, Airbnb’s equivalent in the private car-for-hire business. But Airbnb and Uber have their finger on the pulse of the times, and with some tweaking of their business model I suspect they will ride out the resistance and not only survive but thrive.

I don’t take a position on the above controversy. I do, however, have a negative view of Airbnb for entirely unrelated reasons.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 1: New Gary, IN

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Jeff Malmquist is unaccountably catapulted to the year 2060. He finds himself in New Gary, Indiana, a labor camp of one million Chicagoans, their identities hacked and incriminated as pedophiles through the collusion of a corrupt US Government, the Russian cybermafia, and China (which runs the USA behind the scenes). He escapes to Chicago, only to find himself in a full-scale replica of Ancient Rome in China, erected for the wealthy country’s amusement and manned by a million enslaved Italians. Or did China come first? As he struggles to orient himself in these synchronized urban labyrinths, he is plunged back to real Ancient Rome, before being flung yet further into the future: It’s 2115 and the Chinese Empire rules the world. The former Western hemisphere is now the American Special Administrative Region, a vast Cantonese-speaking slave colony. Malmquist will soon be shipped to the most opulent city the world has ever known for an unspeakable fate.

A dystopian satire both bleak and funny, The Kitchens of Canton distills the worst of our present and future societies into a strangely seductive maze of a story.

American Rococo

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American commercial architecture is defined by clean lines and open space.

There is a highly sensuous quality to the American retail experience, whether easing a toasty warm Potbellian sandwich or a Culver’s fudge pecan frozen custard sundae into your mouth, navigating the broad aisles of a Walmart (designed for people hooked up to oxygen canisters in their electric carts), or perusing the apparel and guns at an outdoor recreation chain such as Gander Mountain. The latter’s elegant gun displays are laid out behind glass cabinets with the patient precision of a museum curator. The hushed church-like atmosphere of the store, the combat green industrial carpeting, the wide wiggle room between the clothing carousels (reducing your risk of bumping into a customer with a concealed weapon), the durable feel of the fabrics’ weave in the fingers, the astonishing variety of pockets, the stylish camouflage patterns on everything from rifles to sunglasses, and the great deals (five dollars for a genuine Australian Akubra hat)—all conspire to make shopping intensely satisfying, even for types such as myself who don’t normally enjoy shopping.